The Half of It

One of my favorite—and now badly dated—childhood books was Edward Eager’s Half Magic, a fantasy about an enchanted token that granted exactly one half of what you wished for. So wishing that your pet could talk would mean that your pet could sort of talk (shades of Scooby Doo), and wishing that your sibling were as far away as China could result in her suddenly finding herself in a desert midway between you and Peking (definitely not Beijing).

In each of Eager’s scenarios, it was clear what half meant. But in real life there are many occasions when half doesn’t seem to mean 50 percent, or if it does, it doesn’t mean it the way you might expect.

Half is on solid ground in matters of measurement. There’s not much to say about a half-pound of sugar, except maybe from a nutritional perspective. In a recipe or formula, it’s quite useful if half were understood as exactly 50  percent. The optimist and the pessimist may dispute whether that legendary glass is half-full or half-empty, but they agree that half the glass is occupied in a way the other guy overvalues.

In prose, however, we often call on half not as a measurement but as a term of emphasis. When Helen didn’t come straight home from the beach Mrs Beaumont was half out of her mind with worry. Being one-third out of her mind would have made the same point, if unidiomatically.

After his day at Ikea, Sam was half-dead with exhaustion. No precision is required in this thought, and none is implied. We can all imagine what being half-dead feels like. Trip to Ikea not necessary.

I got half a mind to punch you in the kisser. The speaker, who might possibly have once been described as a palooka, is making a threatening gesture. He’s thinking about that punch, and just might go ahead with it. The potential recipient of said punch isn’t worrying whether the fist is half empty or half full.

In vulgar—and widespread—usage, a job badly done is half-assed. (Shakespeare’s Bottom was half-assed. The rest of us are just lazy or incompetent.) The effectiveness of this expression depends on both the emphasizer function of half and the shock value of the second term. Measurement has nothing to do with it. For the record, a half butt is a type of snooker cue.

My favorite half usage, however, is the British idiom half fancy, as in I don’t half fancy a dirty weekend in France. What could this twisted construction mean?  It sounded like some kind of unfamiliar double negative. If you don’t half fancy something, or so I reasoned when I first heard it, maybe you were simply indifferent, as if you were to say “I don’t much care one way or another.” A quickie in Calais? Yawn. Or maybe it could mean “I don’t fancy even as much as half the idea”—it’s entirely repellent and I want nothing to do with it.

But that was clearly not the speaker’s point. If you half fancy something, or more likely someone, you’re quite tickled by the prospect ahead, whether or not it ever actually takes place. A French weekend, and a dirty one in particular, appealed to more than half of my speaker.

I was only left to imagine which half.

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